Fanfiction and the legitimacy of writing for one’s own enjoyment

Screenshot of fandom archive AO3

Fan fiction defined: a genre of writing written by fans that uses worlds and/or characters from already published fiction.  Also known as transformative or derivative works of fiction.  

My best friend is currently taking a seminar that deals heavily with vampire/horror literature (how cool is that?).  During one of our conversations on this subject, we stumbled upon Anne Rice–known for her vampire series– which then led my friend and I, both long-time fandomers, to lament her dislike of fan fiction.

Growing up in the internet age, being myself a somewhat prolific writer & an avid reader of fanfiction, it boggles my mind to think about a writer who does not allow fans to play with her works, to create fanfiction based on the characters that they love.  In an era during which creators are able to engage very directly with their readership, when such things are important–even necessary–to a writer’s popularity and success, it feels rather counter-intuitive to place restrictions on your own fanbase and risk alienating them.   Having been an Anne Rice fan for a number of years in my youth, I can attest that I did feel somewhat alienated, and that it contributed to my no longer reading her books.

Unfortunately, there are famous published authors who look down upon fanfiction.  Below are a few quotes from some you may recognize:

“Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out…No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me.”  – George R.R. Martin

“It does not help them as writers; it can easily harm me; and those who care about my stories and characters know that what I write is “real” and has authority, and what fans write is not and does not. So it’s all pointless.”Orson Scott Card

“It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.” – Anne Rice

“People pour out so much energy and talent into them… It makes me frustrated. I’m like, go write your own story. Put them out there and get them published. That’s what you should be doing. You should be working on your own book right now.” – Stephanie Meyer

Let me tell you why the comments above bother me:

They assume that fans are the enemy, that they are out to somehow steal authority or money from the works’ original creators.  In most cases, this is simply not true.  Rather than trying to hurt the original creators, fanworks help to bring more interest and attention to the original medium.  Most fan creators would never dream of turning a profit–and, indeed, copyright laws prevent them.  I will not go into fair-usage laws here, as I’m not a lawyer and others have explained it better than I ever could.

They impress upon us the idea that writing that is not intended for publication has no merit.  If you’re not published or trying to publish, if you’re not creating your own characters, your writing is a waste of space and a waste of time.  The legitimacy of your writing, your identity as a real writer, is forfeit.   Your writing has no value whatsoever because no bookstores are carrying your work and you’re making no money.

This, I say, is utter bullsh*t.

In my last typecast I mentioned that when I asked myself why I wrote, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t to get published or to make lots of money, but to put a bit of myself out there, to work through the difficulties in my life, to gain an understanding of the things I don’t already understand.

Fanwriters are, in essentials, doing the same thing.  They’re taking what they don’t understand, what they aren’t satisfied with, or what they want to explore further, and they’re engaging with the material in a creative way.  They’re starting a conversion, and in doing so, grow to love that material more, to make it their own.  If a writer’s goal is to connect with their readers through their characters and stories, then having fanfiction and fanart created for one’s works is perhaps the most flattering confirmation of that goal.

If I wrote a commercially available novel and after a while found that no one had written anything on Livejournal or Archive of Our Own for it, I would feel very sad.  I would feel like I’d failed, because I haven’t reached an audience, haven’t gotten anyone interested in my stories enough to want to play with them.

The insistence that derivative works have no place really irks me because it is grounded in the belief that writing is done for a specific purpose, a specific audience that has to go beyond oneself and one’s intimates, that is intended for public consumption.  It’s a thought process I can’t abide by.  It’s a restriction on my freedom as a writer and a denial of the legitimacy of my writing.

I am just as proud of the stories I’ve written as a fanwriter as of those stories I’ve written with original characters and settings.  I derive lots of joy from the sense of community that arises from fandom.  I like that I can read other peoples’ interpretations of something that I hold dear.  Many fan writers are ashamed of the writing they do, because they feel that it is somehow cheating, somehow sub-par work.  This is really sad, because fanfiction serves so many purposes.

Writing fanfiction has taught me many things:  how to plan out a plot, how to convey characters’ thoughts and the reasons for their actions; how to stick to a deadline; how to write on a regular basis.  Without fanfiction as a valuable tool to practice my writing, I don’t think I would be as good of a writer as I am now (despite the long, long road still ahead of me).

For all the writers like Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin, and Orson Scott Card, there are many more writers who appreciate the value of fanfiction, and actively encourage their fans to engage with the material.  Here is a handy list of authors and their views on fanfiction.  Below are some notable examples:

Sarah Rees Brennan, who wrote Harry Potter fanfiction for years before selling her Demon’s Lexicon series for a six-figure deal after a bidding war, says, “I think fanfiction is very cool. It’s a way to have fun, be imaginative and practise your writing.”

Meg Cabot, who wrote the Princess Diaries series: “I’m not going to get all authorish and beg you to please stop writing fan fiction based on my books, because, as a kid, I wrote reams and reams of fan fiction based on Star Wars, most of which I sent to George Lucas.”

John Rogers of the Leverage TV show says, “I think fanfic is the sign of a healthy show. Here’s what it boils down to: you’re telling me that in today’s crowded media space, our show made someone love it so much they take time out of their own life to talk about it? Holy. Crap.”

Many popular published books started out as fanfiction.  The most notable one that comes to mind–though I can’t say I’m a fan–is the Fifty Shades of Grey books, which reportedly began life as Twilight fanficiton.  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith uses the original Jane Austen text and inserts, yes, zombies.   Gregory Maguire’s books (i..e. Wicked & Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) are labeled as “revisionist” retellings of classic children’s stories.

When it comes to writing, it is my honest opinion that everything and anything goes.  The flexibility of writing, the way it allows us a playground for our imagination, is what makes it such a precious pastime for me.  As long as I’m not infringing upon anyone’s rights and not making any money from those works that aren’t 100% my own, I make no apologies for exercising my right to play and create.  I don’t think anyone else should, either!

 Have you ever written fanfiction?  Have you ever wanted to try?

Sources for quotations:





  • Lani

    What a fascinating post. I didn’t know anything about fanfiction until I read your article. It’s actually quite difficult to have an option since I don’t write fiction or have created a world worth copying and day dreaming about. I see the points of both sides…you’re going to have to win me over one day with one of your fanfic stories! :)

    • Tam Lee

      Thanks! Even if you don’t write fiction, I think the idea that your writing has value whether it’s published or not is important. The arguments against fanfiction that specifically say it has no value because it’s not something you can publish is really sad, and gives the wrong impression of writing. We neither of us write to earn a living, but our writing is just as valuable and important because it gives us joy, and that is never wasteful.

      I’ve linked to my fanfic stories above(“stories I’ve written as a fanwriter”), actually, so if you’re interested in any of the fandoms I’ve written for feel free to read! I must warn you they’re all rather homoerotic, and most of them are Harry Potter fanfics involving Severus Snape, ahahaha.
      But you know, there’s excellent fanfic for practically anything you can think of. I read a really great Calvin & Hobbes fic the other day that stayed with me for days. You can just search for things that interest you. Stories with lots of kudos given are usually somewhat decent.

      • Lani

        I sent you a link via Twitter messaging about famous fanfic authors b/c I thought of you :) Thanks for the links, I will have to check them out. Homework ;) for the weekend…

        • Tam Lee

          Oh I saw that link. Thanks very much for sending it! =)

  • Richard P

    I totally agree. My daughter was writing a lot of fanfics for a while and I think it was a great way to (a) further explore an imaginary world and (b) develop her own writing talents without having to make up everything from scratch.

    • Tam Lee

      Yes! Any writing, I think, is good for writing’s sake. =)

      Thanks for reading!

  • Kara Hughes

    I always liken Fanfiction and Original Fiction in 2 ways. Fanfiction is like going for a swim in a nice heated pool. You know the parameters, you get the exercise and you get to have fun safely. Original Fiction is like swimming in the ocean; you have to work hard to swim the distance; it’s cold and lonely and very often you’re having to retrace where you swam to keep everything in order. And it’s very easy to lose sight of land. I’ve written Fanfic (and Original Fic) for many years and love both.

    • Tam Lee

      I agree! Fanfiction is a lot safer and a lot of fun, but the risk and chaos that is original fiction is what makes it exciting to write.

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